Mike Shapiro used to pick up a copy of the local newspaper from the driveway of his home in New Providence, New Jersey. That publication—the Independent Press—was the only news source devoted to his town of about 12,000 residents. Its website was far from sophisticated. It wasn’t on any social media platforms. And since it was a weekly, it generally didn’t include breaking news.
Seeing an opportunity, Shapiro, a former litigation attorney, and his wife, Lauryn, started TheAlternativePress.com in October 2008. Their goal was to create a network of websites that focused on real-time hyperlocal news in New Jersey towns, starting with New Providence, Summit, and Berkeley Heights.
“People didn’t want to wait a week to find out that there had been a string of burglaries in town, or if the football team had won a big game,” Shapiro says.
The Independent Press employed a staff of eight professional journalists who covered seven towns, according to former publisher Michael Kelly. Shapiro, on the other hand, didn’t have a background in journalism. What he did understand was that there was a dearth of online news coverage in his community and in New Jersey as a whole.
The Garden State sits between two media hubs—Philadelphia and New York—and is home to more than 500 municipalities. There aren’t enough news outlets covering these towns, particularly in low-income and urban areas, according to a 2015 report funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. While Shapiro’s sites started in affluent suburbs, the company has since ventured into less wealthy areas, such as Paterson.
“That’s a problem for democracy in those towns,” Shapiro says. Residents have to cast their votes based on paid mailers delivered to their house, he says. “To me, that’s the biggest crisis in terms of local media.”
People didn’t want to wait a week to find out that there had been a string of burglaries in town, or if the football team had won a big game.
Whether Shapiro can remedy that problem has yet to be seen, but he isn’t the only one trying. Other sites, such as RedBankGreen.com, which focuses on one town and its surrounding area, and political news site NJ Spotlight have tried to provide online news for New Jersey residents. Patch, a collection of hyperlocal sites previously owned by AOL and later sold to Hale Global, dropped into New Jersey around the same time Shapiro launched TheAlternativePress.com.
But Patch grew too quickly, ballooning to more than 900 sites within three years. Its fast-paced, top-down approach didn’t work; a third of its sites closed down and hundreds of employees were laid off in 2013. Shapiro aimed to grow his company in a slower, more organic way by letting members of the community franchise a website for their own towns.
Website owners typically pay Shapiro an annual fee of $4,250 to $6,750, depending on their municipality’s population. Shapiro also receives 10 percent of the individual sites’ ad revenue. The money helps cover operating costs and online infrastructure, which Shapiro’s team manages. However, the franchisees are responsible for maintaining and growing their readership.
“We want to be a franchise of independent publishers,” Shapiro says. By 2014, the site for New Providence had become the “main newspaper for everyone in town,” he says. Calling it the “alternative” to the Independent Press didn’t make sense to him anymore, so he changed the company’s name to TAPinto. “We’re ‘tapping into’ the community,” Shapiro says.
Within the past seven years, TAPinto has expanded to 51 sites, with two more expected to launch this spring. Shapiro says the sites have received a combined 4.2 million unique visitors over the last year, with each site’s readership consisting mainly of local residents.* About 500 businesses advertise with TAPinto, ranging from mom-and-pop shops to Allstate Insurance.
About half the company’s franchises have at least one person involved who worked as a full-time or part-time journalist, freelanced for a news organization, or graduated with a degree in journalism. But most want to run a news site because they have strong ties to their local areas.
South Plainfield resident Darlene Cullen, who used to be a regional vice president for Fulton Bank but has no prior journalism experience, sits on a three-person TAPinto committee set up to vet potential website owners. The main qualification is a commitment to the community, Cullen says.
“We try to dig deep into everyone as far as why they want to start a franchise,” she says.
The committee reviews each applicant’s employment history and community affiliations, and looks for individuals who demonstrate business acumen or editorial skills. However, if a potential franchisee appears to be biased or has an “axe to grind” with the local government, he or she will be turned down, Cullen says.
Applicants usually come to Shapiro with a team of two: one person who will focus on content, and another who handles sales. Once the committee has approved a team to run a TAPinto site, its members must complete approximately 10 hours of in-person training and 10-15 hours of video instruction on topics ranging from Google Analytics to social media management.
Written training materials try to teach website owners to write objectively, explaining how to use attribution and urging them to avoid language that can be interpreted as editorializing. The manual tells writers to avoid subjective wording of the kind that can be found in press releases, such as using the word “delicious” to describe the food at a local pizza joint.
Recently, one of the franchisees published a story that included more photos of Democratic Party members than their Republican counterparts. Shapiro says one of the editors reached out and asked the franchisee to even out the ratio.
“It’s not just your writing that has to be objective,” Shapiro says.
Each site also has a section for press releases. This was created to promote local nonprofits and other organizations without endorsing a specific cause, Shapiro says.
“A lot of these nonprofits don’t have a marketing budget. We provide them with a platform to get their word out about their events and their fundraiser,” Shapiro says. “It goes back to the mission of serving our community.”
This isn’t just about being a journalist. You have to be an entrepreneur, because you are running a business.
A clause in the franchise agreement also requires publishers to abide by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. A team of six editors—most of whom have journalism experience—monitors the websites for any questionable content. Shapiro also holds biweekly calls with the website owners.
TAPinto’s approach has some upsides in places like New Providence. Engaged residents “tend to know the community, and that comes across in the coverage,” says Katie McCollough, a doctoral student at Rutgers University and principal author of a 2013 report on the New Jersey news ecosystem.
But the lack of a strong foundation in journalism can put a hyperlocal site at a disadvantage. “It is very much a detriment. Journalism training is what tends to set sites apart,” McCollough says. In order for TAPinto to succeed, she says, it needs to sell franchises to people with a background in journalism.
As TAPinto has gained prominence, more journalists have shown interest in purchasing a franchise, Shapiro says. Jackie Lieberman, who started the Westfield site, is one of them. She has written for national magazines like Woman’s World. “I wouldn’t say the people running them aren’t journalists—they are now,” Lieberman says. “But my past experience does help.”
In 2014, TAPinto expanded to New York. It franchises to Halston Media, which owns the Mahopac News, North Salem News, The Somers Record, and Yorktown News in Westchester and Putnam counties. Publisher Brett Freeman says that buying the TAPinto franchises in those towns was the most cost-effective way for the papers to maintain an online presence. TAPinto also expanded to Greater Olean in western New York, where Rich Lee, a professor at the school of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University, and his wife, Anne, supervise a group of undergraduates who provide content for the site.
While the training modules and ongoing support from TAPinto’s editors provide a decent foundation, Lee says there is “no substitute for years of experience in a newsroom.”
Journalists or not, some owners have managed to bring in additional income or quit their former jobs and cover their towns full-time. It took Elizabeth Parascandola-Clee, a former human resources consultant, six months to recoup her full investment. She purchased the Clark franchise with her business partner, Susan Roselli Bonnell, in June 2014.
“This isn’t just about being a journalist,” Parascandola-Clee says. “You have to be an entrepreneur, because you are running a business.”
It took Berkeley Heights resident Bobbie Peer four months to earn back her initial investment of $7,000. Peer is a former insurance broker who quit her job in 1997 to raise four children and volunteer for local organizations and the American Red Cross. She now owns the Berkeley Heights, New Providence, and Mountainside franchises. When the Independent Press printed its last edition in May and began publishing its content exclusively on NJ.com, Peer even took on some of its writers as freelancers.
The sites Peer owns were some of the earliest ones—and they’re still growing. Shapiro says the site traffic for these three sites increased by 30 percent last year. He expects TAPinto to have 75 sites by the end of 2016, and hopes to add 25 more sites per year after that.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re perfect,” Shapiro says. “But I think we have a workable, profitable model for scaling and sustaining local news.”
*An earlier version of this story misstated the number of unique visitors TAPinto sites have received.Suzie Xie is a Columbia Journalism School student. You can learn more about her work at www.suziecxie.com and follow her on Twitter @suziecxie.